Gilliam v. U.S. Dep't of Agric.

Decision Date11 September 2020
Docket NumberCase No. 20-cv-3504-JMY
Citation486 F.Supp.3d 856
Parties Latoya GILLIAM, et al., Plaintiffs v. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, et al., Defendants
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Jonelle Saunders, Morgan Lewis Bockius, Washington, DC, Amy E. Hirsch, Louise E. Hayes, Elizabeth D. Soltan, Community Legal Services Inc., John P. LaVelle, Jr., Morgan Lewis Bockius LLP, Philadelphia, PA, for Plaintiffs.

Kuntal V. Cholera, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

YOUNGE, Judge

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs Latoya Gilliam and Kayla McCrobie bring this putative class action against Defendants United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA") and current USDA Secretary George Ervin Perdue III, challenging USDA's interpretation and implementation of Section 2302(a)(1) of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act ("FFCRA"), Pub. L. No. 116-127, § 2302(a)(1), 134 Stat. 178, 188 (Mar. 18, 2020). (See "Compl." ¶¶ 1-12, ECF No. 1.) FFCRA Section 2302, titled "Additional SNAP Flexibilities in a Public Health Emergency[,]" provides, in Section 2302(a)(1), for emergency allotments under the supplemental nutrition assistance program ("SNAP") in the event of an emergency declaration by Federal and State authorities based on an outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 ("COVID-19"). FFCRA § 2302(a)(1).

Plaintiffs bring this suit under the Administrative Procedures Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. § 500 et seq. , alleging that Defendantsinterpretation of Section 2302(a)(1) is both contrary to the statute's directive and arbitrary and capricious. (Compl. ¶¶ 5-8.) Plaintiffs assert that Defendants’ unlawful interpretation denies "emergency allotments" to the neediest SNAP households and, in Pennsylvania, prevents the State Department of Human Services ("DHS") from providing any "emergency allotments" to nearly 40 percent of Pennsylvania's SNAP households. (Id. ¶¶ 1, 4.) Plaintiffs’ Complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as their litigation costs. (Id. ¶¶ 114-115.)

Presently before the Court is PlaintiffsMotion for Preliminary Injunction. ("Mot.," ECF No. 4.) The Court conducted a hearing on the Motion on August 20, 2020. (See Order for Hr'g, ECF No. 10; Hr'g Tr., ECF No. 21.) At the core of this preliminary injunction proceeding, the Court is tasked with determining what was the intent of Congress as expressed in Section 2302(a)(1). Did Congress intend, as Plaintiffs maintain, to require USDA to assess Pennsylvania's requests for emergency allotments, to determine whether such requests are supported by sufficient data (as determined by the Secretary through guidance), and if USDA concludes they are, to provide the requested emergency allotments without regard to the amount of a household's regular SNAP allotment? Or, as Defendants contend, did Congress intend to specify the process for assessment and provision of emergency allotments, understanding and intending that USDA's implementation of Section 2302(a)(1) would deny any emergency allotments to approximately 40 percent of—and the poorest among—Pennsylvania's SNAP households?

With this in mind, and as detailed further below, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have established that a preliminary injunction is warranted and will accordingly grant their motion.

II. BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY1

To place the issues before the Court in context, we begin with a summary of the circumstances that led to Congress's enactment of the FFCRA. The remaining background addresses the SNAP statutory scheme, including the disaster relief provisions that pre-date FFCRA § 2302; the text of Section 2302(a)(1) and USDA's interpretation of that provision; and, finally, Pennsylvania's request for emergency allotments under Section 2302(a)(1).

A. COVID-19 and the FFCRA

The United States, including the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is confronted with an unprecedented public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (See Joint Stipulation of Uncontested Facts ("SUF") ¶¶ 5-6, ECF No. 17 ("In response to COVID-19, the Secretary of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency ... [which] has been renewed, most recently on July 23, 2020, and is currently in effect through October 23, 2020.").) As a fellow member of this Court aptly summarized: "The world is in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis. The deadliest pandemic in over a century has swept across the globe and has upended the lives of the American people in previously unimaginable ways." HAPCO v. City of Phila. , No. 20-cv-3300, 2020 WL 5095496, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 28, 2020) (Rufe, J.).

As of the date of this Memorandum, 137,803 Pennsylvania residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and 7,820 Pennsylvanians have died. See COVID-19 Data for Pennsylvania , Pennsylvania Department of Health, https://www.health.pa.gov/topics/disease/coronavirus/Pages/Cases.aspx (last visited September 11, 2020); see also South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom , ––– U.S. ––––, 140 S. Ct. 1613, 1613, 207 L.Ed.2d 154 (2020) ("COVID-19 [is] a novel severe acute respiratory illness that has killed ... more than [190,262] nationwide. At this time, there is no known cure, no effective treatment, and no vaccine."); Coronavirus Disease 2019: Cases and Deaths in the U.S. , Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/?CDC_AA_refVal=https% 3A% 2F% 2Fwww.cdc.gov% 2Fcoronavirus% 2F2019-ncov% 2Fcases-updates% 2Fcases-in-us.html#cases (last visited September 11, 2020).

The legislation at the heart of this litigation, the FFCRA, is one of several measures Congress has taken to provide relief to Americans and to promote public health. By any measure, the FFCRA is an aggressive legislative response to the wide-ranging needs, including increased food insecurity, faced by families as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a picture of widespread hardship has emerged—including accounts of households unable to afford basic necessities and long lines at food pantries and other private charities. An indication of the increase in food insecurity since the start of the pandemic is found in one study, utilizing data collected through the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey, which noted that "food insecurity has doubled overall, and tripled among households with children." See How Much Has Food Insecurity Risen? Evidence from the Census Household Pulse Survey , Northwestern Institute for Policy Research, https://www.ipr.northwestern.edu/documents/reports/ipr-rapid-research-reports-pulse-hh-data-10-june-2020.pdf (last visited September 7, 2020); see also Measuring Household Experiences During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic , United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/data/experimental-data-products/household-pulse-survey.html (last visited September 7, 2020). Furthermore, data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau from July 16, 2020 to July 21, 2020, indicates that in Pennsylvania, 11.3% of adults live in a household "where there was either sometimes or often not enough to eat in the last 7 days." Household Pulse Survey Interactive Tool , United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/data-tools/demo/hhp/#/?measures=FIR & s_state=00042 & mapPeriodSelector=4 & mapAreaSelector=st & s_metro= (last visited September 7, 2020).

B. SNAP and Disaster Relief Provisions
1. SNAP Administration

Congress enacted the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 ("FNA") to "rais[e] levels of nutrition among low-income households" through a "supplemental nutrition assistance program" that allows "low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet through normal channels of trade by increasing food purchasing power." 7 U.S.C. § 2011. "It is well established that a nutritious and adequate diet is essential to healthy living and child development, and SNAP benefits contribute to preserving recipients’ overall health." (Mot. at 8 (citing ECF Nos. 4-5, 4-6, 4-10).)

SNAP operates as a federally funded, state administered program under which state agencies request and distribute monthly allotments for all eligible households in their state, as defined by the FNA. 7 U.S.C. § 2013(a). Households that receive SNAP allotments then redeem these allotments to purchase food at qualifying retail stores. Id. The FNA limits the value of the monthly allotment that households may receive to the cost of the "thrifty food plan" reduced by thirty percent of the household's income. Id. § 2017(a). The "thrifty food plan" is defined as the cost required to feed a family of four, adjusted by household size, and is the basis for the maximum monthly allotment a household can receive. Id. §§ 2012(u), 2017(a). Current maximum monthly benefit amounts from October 2019 through September 2020 are as follows:

Family Size 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Each Additional
Maximum $194 $355 $509 $646 $768 $921 $1,018 $1,164 Add $146

See SNAP Facts , Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, https://www.dhs.pa.gov/Services/Assistance/Pages/SNAP.aspx (last visited September 7, 2020).2

The FNA expressly limits the overall value of SNAP allotments issued in each fiscal year "to an amount not in excess of the appropriation for such fiscal year." 7 U.S.C. § 2027(b). Accordingly, if USDA "finds that the requirements of participating States will exceed the appropriation," it must direct the States to reduce SNAP allotments as necessary to stay within the bounds of appropriated funds for that year. Id. If USDA is obliged to reduce SNAP allotments, it must still ensure "to the maximum extent practicable," that the reductions reflect "the ratio of household income" to "the income standards of eligibility." Id. § 2027(c). However, before this occurs, USDA must alert Congress of the anticipated need to reduce allotments so that Congress may appropriate additional funds as needed.3 Id. § 2027(d).

2. FNA Disaster Relief Provisions

The FNA directs USDA to "establish temporary emergency standards of eligibility" in...

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